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How UConn men’s hockey built its Russian pipeline

Plus a look at the Huskies’ newest addition, changes to the Hockey East format and more.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

This past week, Vladislav Firstov and Yan Kuznetsov made history. Both UConn men’s hockey players were named to the Russia World Juniors team — the first NCAA players to do so.

It’s only fitting that the first two come from the Huskies’ program. Since the school joined Hockey East, UConn have featured a handful of Russian or those of Russian descent, such as Max Letunov, Sasha Payusov, Ruslan Iskhakov, Firstov, Kuznetsov and Artem Shlaine.

“We’ve had a lot of success with the Russian players,” assistant coach Tyler Helton said. “I know we’re really excited that both Yan and Vlad made the team...hopefully we can continue to have more NCAA players play for Russia and hopefully they’re UConn Huskies.”

Though recruiting Russian players specifically wasn’t Mike Cavanaugh’s plan when he took over at UConn, he knew he needed to get creative to bring Hockey East-level talent to Storrs. As a newcomer to the conference without much history or prestige and sub-par facilities, local talent wouldn’t consider the Huskies.

“We wanted (BC goaltender) Spencer Knight...he just didn’t want to visit UConn,” Cavanaugh said. “(Former BU star) Trevor Zegras is another kid. He’s right over the border of Connecticut in that Westchester (New York) area — which I consider that’s going to be kind of our home territory — and he didn’t really consider UConn.”

So Cavanaugh and his staff explored other pipelines that other programs weren’t utilizing for one reason or another, which eventually meant looking at talent from Europe. It didn’t necessarily begin with Russian players, though.

The Huskies had also brought in Kasperi Ojantakanen from Finland, Philip Nyberg from Sweden, Adam Huska from Slovakia, Bradly Stone from England and, of course, Letunov from Russia.

Letunov proved to be the most important addition — on and off the ice.

In 2017, Cavanaugh traveled up to Nova Scotia, Canada to watch the World Junior A Challenge — a six-team tournament that featured some of the best junior U-20 prospects from the US, Canada, Czech Republic, Russia and Switzerland.

The coach was there to watch a pair of then-recruits on the Huskies’ radar: Carter Turnbull and Jachym Kondelik. But throughout the tournament, he noticed a diminutive player with great hands on the Russian team: Iskhakov.

Cavanaugh asked around about him and eventually learned his family knew of Letunov — since both players were from Moscow.

Iskhakov eventually came to Storrs as part of the Huskies’ vaunted 2018 class and helped connect the staff to Firstov and Kuznetsov, who came in a year later.

“That’s how recruiting works a lot of times,” Cavanaugh said. “Paige Bueckers, I think, is very friendly with the girl that just committed to UConn, Azzi Fudd. I know they had a really close relationship so that doesn’t hurt. So that’s how we got into that market.”

But now, with UConn establishing itself as a solid Hockey East program, a new rink in the works and the team landing its first elite Connecticut talent in Nick Capone, Cavanaugh hopes it can start to land local talent on a more consistent basis.

“I do want to make, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York (pipelines),” he said. “As I’ve often said, I don’t want them driving by UConn to go to another hockey school if they’re good players. So I think that has to be our foundation.”

However, that doesn’t mean the Huskies are going to turn away from a formula that’s helped them get to where they are now.

“I’m open and I’m not averse to recruiting a kid from wherever they are,” Cavanaugh said. “I think we have to recruit the very best hockey players we can come to UConn and I think diversity is great...if we can get another Vlad Firstov out of Russia or Yan Kuznetsov or Ruslan Iskhakov, I’ll take them in a second. Those types of players, they’re always welcome here at the University of Connecticut.”

Tverberg addition made official

After being reported by The UConn Blog in late November, Cavanaugh officially announced that Ryan Tverberg will join the team after Christmas. Though the freshman will have to quarantine once he arrives on campus, Cavanaugh expects him to be eligible to play in early January.

“I think he’s gonna provide us with a little depth upfront,” Cavanaugh said. “He skates extremely well played, plays gritty, offensively he can be dynamic at times. He’s a seventh round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs this year. So he’s a kid that we’re excited to be bringing into the program.”

With so much uncertainty around the season and the potential disruptions that the coronavirus could bring to both UConn’s schedule and roster, Cavanaugh wanted to add extra forward depth. But the most important factor in the decision is that Tverberg won’t lose a year of eligibility after the NCAA granted all winter athletes an extra year.

While Tverberg should be a boost to the Huskies this year, the focus will be on getting him ready for next fall in what would be his “normal” freshman season.

“Everybody knows that transition from high school or juniors to college is always a big transition,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s a lot for a young kid when they come, first time away from home, living away from home and with a totally different academic curriculum and new hockey coach and program and players to get used to. So that stuff, he’ll have a whole semester under his belt and he’ll know the players and the school and the campus and what’s expected of him in the classroom and on the ice.”

Cavanaugh favors format changes, wants to see more

This past week, Hockey East announced all 11 teams will make the conference tournament due to the likelihood of an unbalanced schedule. In addition, the league also changed its format by counting all games played between two Hockey East schools towards the final standings instead of designation some conference matchups and other non-conference, “flex” meetings.

Though the latter move could hurt UConn — the Huskies will have played four games against top 20 opponents that weren’t originally on the schedule — Cavanaugh supported both changes.

“I was good with both decisions,” Cavanaugh said. “I’ve been in favor of all teams making the tournament since the league went to an unbalanced schedule. I think that it makes sense to have all teams in the tournament.”

In fact, the coach wants to take it a step further. In the past, the initial rounds of the Hockey East Tournament have been three-game series at the higher seed’s home ice before it switches to single-elimination for the semifinals and finals at the TD Garden in Boston. Cavanaugh wants every round to be do-or-die.

“Hopefully this year we experiment with a single elimination because I’ve kind of been pushing for that for a number of years,” he said. “I think that would add more excitement to our tournament.”

Injury report

As of now, UConn will have everyone — except Firstov and Kuznetsov — available against UMass Lowell. However, Cavanaugh only spoke to the media on Friday, so plenty could change before Monday.

How to watch

Monday’s game versus UMass Lowell, which will begin at 5 p.m., will be streamed for free on SportsLive. Wednesday’s game at UMass, a 3:30 p.m. puck drop, will air on NESN.